Participants discussed the various challenges posed by Iran’s current educational system, explored ways to increase opportunities now and pave the way for future educational reform.  Experts on Turkey and Romania also offered their perspectives based on historical experiences.

“Education is a significant lever for development and progress: All historical changes were accompanied by educational reforms that shaped minds, institutions and social relationships.”

- Cesar Birzea, National School for Political and Administrative Studies, Bucharest

Mainstream Education in Iran

The current educational system in Iran, a product of post-Revolutionary reforms, is dictated by the central government and driven by ideology. Based on the promotion of Shi’ite values, it aims to curb the influence of Western culture and any diverse views.

Key challenges of the current system include:

  • Dominance of Shi’ite religion across the entire educational system: in textbooks, lessons, and extra-curricular activities
  • A discourse of intolerance and discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religious minorities and outsiders
  • Rejection of discussion on human rights, democracy, equality – topics that may ‘threaten’ the current system
  • Government imposed curriculum, which does not offer space for teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • Ideologically trained teachers; those who divert from the status quo are removed
  • An increase in the student population paired with a decrease in government spending has led to a lower quality of education
“Secularisation of education is the only solution and the only way we can encourage children to have critical thinking and be able to express themselves freely in the future.”

- Saeed Paivandi, University of Lorraine

Gender Discrimination

After a period of liberalization in the 1990’s and 2000’s, education rates for women increased significantly, with their university enrolment eventually overtaking that of men, leading to an increase in feminism and independent thought.  Surprisingly, women made considerable progress in an anti-female educational system.  However a reversal of this trend began in 2005, with the government’s return to strict conservatism, which still stands today. 

  • Men and women are not given equal choices, which limits options for women
  • Restriction of women’s access to professional fields of study and therefore to higher paid jobs
  • Promotion of a subservient view of women in textbooks, social settings and curricula from early education throughout university
  • Implementation of gender segregation in universities and in areas of study
“Women who applied to university did not know what fields they could choose. When they arrived, they found out that 77 fields in 36 universities were restricted for them. The idea is to separate men and women completely.”

- Goli Rezai-Rashti, University of Western Ontario

Learning from Past Transitions

Professor Cesar Birzea offered insight from Romania’s transition experience. While the history and social structures were different from Iran’s, the former communist block practiced a similar self-isolation.  A few lessons, which may be relevant:

  • Transition is complex and includes political, economic and cultural components. While the first two may happen within a decade, cultural transition takes a generation
  • Educational reform is not limited to immediate concrete changes; systematic reform, including teacher re-training, curriculum development and revised textbooks, requires a long-term investment
  • Transition to a knowledge-based society is another challenge, which is still underway in Romania
“We need a bridge, a civic identity to bring all people together and make all differences a power of society.”

- Akbar Atri, E-Collabortaive for Civic Education (Tavaana)

Civic Education or What Can be Done Now

Complete educational reform will require an overhaul in legislation and the support of the government.  However, through the use of new media, online communications and expatriate community involvement, it is possible to engage Iranian citizens, despite existing obstacles.

Civic education programmes, including the Tavaana: E-Learning Institute, Iran Academia and the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, are not waiting for a transition to reach Iranian students. By providing access to education in alternative realms, these organisations, along with other web-based entities, empower Iranian students and offer a foundation for a more inclusive educational system in the future:

  • Students gain access to knowledge outside the bounds of the existing curriculum, particularly in the field of humanities, which has faltered in recent years
  • They fill the current learning gap with a discourse in human rights, equality, individual responsibility and civic consciousness
  • Students  obtain the tools to excel by learning critical thinking and decision-making skills
  • They offer opportunities to those who are limited by the existing educational system, such as the Baha’i and other minority groups.
“As more human rights education is occurring online and outside of Iran, we need to be particularly vigilant about the implications of that remoteness.  We need to ensure that despite the remoteness, the objectives of Iran remain real and relevant for a changing demographic in Iran and a changing Iran.”

- Nazila Ghanea, University of Oxford

The full programme, including panellist biographies, can be downloaded here [PDF]

A selection of the final papers are available here.

For more information about the Legatum Institute's The Future of Iran series, please click here.